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Home > Focus > Ethics, Human Enhancement and Genetics. Report and Video

Ethics, Human Enhancement and Genetics. Report and Video

by Virginia Sanchini [1], 9 December 2011

Sept 4th, 2011, University Vita-Salute San Raffaele, Milan
Report, video and photos, abstracts.

by Virginia Sanchini

The workshop was organized by Prof. Roberto Mordacci, chair of Moral Philosophy at the  Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan, and by Michele Loi, post-doc researcher at the same University.

The aim of the workshop was to investigate how the latest progress in biotechnologies impacts our understanding of the traditional matters of moral and political philosophy.

Prof. Mordacci first introduced Soren Holm, professor of Clinical Bioethics at the University of Manchester, who conducted a Lecture on Ethics, Human Enhancement and Genetics.

Then followed:
Nicole Vincent, researcher at Macquire University in Sydney, who spoke about Cognitive Enhancement and Responsibility;
Helena Siipi, researcher at Turku University, who spoke about the Unnaturalness of Neuro-enhancement;
Christopher Wareham of FOLSATEC- European School of Molecular Medicine, who spoke about Policy implications of an existing means of substantial life extension - is it an enhancement, and does it matter if it is?

Soren Holm's speech analysed the ethical issues that arise when we aim to enhance either ourselves or our successors through genetic means.
In the first part of his discourse he briefly outlined predictions concerning possible enhancement in the short to medium term future, in terms of predicted enhancement and predicted methods.
In the second part, he analysed what we mean when we say that a particular change in the features of a human being constitutes an enhancement. He showed that there are several plausible conceptions of enhancement at play in ethical debates and that elision between them can lead to confusion.
In the third part he considered whether we have ethical reasons to pursue human enhancement and whether any limits of this pursuit can be justified either in terms of specific enhancement or in terms of specific methods. In this section he also debated whether a specific change that is seen as good for a particular entity can become radically uncertain. (Abstract [2] in Issuu)

Nicole Vincent started by describing a common idea, that she calls Capacitarianism (CP).
CP or the capacitarian idea implies that responsibility (R) has a mental basis, in the sense that R tracks mental capacity. CP also underlies a range of our intuitive Responsibility ascriptions in lay, legal and philosophical concepts. This common idea is the one that justifies our conviction according to which children, the senile and the mentally ill are thought to be less than fully responsible for what they do.
She went on to speak about the concept of enhancement. According to Vincent, enhancement perspective implies the presence of cognitive enhancers, the Responsibility of the enhanced and the Responsibility to enhance; particularly, the Responsibility to enhance new technologies.
She continued by showing the consequences related to this idea: what is the significance of CP and of cognitive enhancement together with CP? In other words - Nicole Vincent said - "how might Responsibility be affected when mental capacities are extended beyond their normal range through cognitive enhancement?"
First of all, the fact that if Responsibility really tracks mental capacity, then it seems that Responsibility co-varies also with hyper-capacity; so CP implies the idea that R tracks hyper-capacity.
Secondly, she suggested that cognitive enhancement is likely to impact on legal Responsibility in some ways, such as the fact that we have Responsibility to enhance and that we are responsible for the enhanced.
Finally Vincent discussed some reservations about the claim that R tracks hyper-capacity as well as capacity, such as the inflation of Responsibility, other values, restoration, vindication or challenge. (Abstract [3] in Issuu)

Helena Siipi introduced and discussed the concept of neuro-enhancement, focusing her attention on the claims concerning its unnaturalness. As she said, 'neuro-enhancement refers to the use of applications of modern neurosciences to make people better'. An example of it is the use of off-labels drugs by those people who want to increase their cognitive performance.
She started her speech posing two questions: in what sense, if any, is neuro-enhancement unnatural? And, if neuro-enhancement is unnatural, is unnaturalness morally relevant?
The main questions are answered by analysing four possible interpretations of the term "natural".
First of all, natural could mean "normality". However we could speak about normality in two different senses: 1) statistical normality, that is not morally significant as such and 2) normality as non-pathology. Nevertheless neuro-enhancement and its outcome are not unnatural in this sense.
Secondly, naturalness could be considered within the meaning of suitability. In this sense "natural for X" is equal to "suitable for X". The example she gave is the following: tomatoes can be said to be natural food for human beings in this sense. If naturalness of something for X depends on possible side effect, intended outcomes and nature of good (good of X) we can say that question of naturalness of neuro-enhancement may be connected to the question of its possible harm and benefits, to the idea of defining human purpose, and, finally, questions that ask 'what is human nature?'
If the perspective through which we analyse the problem is human nature, than the sense of naturalness is naturalness as belonging. In this sense natural of X means essential for X. From this definition, two different questions arise: 1) does neuro-enhancement change human nature? And, 2) is it morally undesirable to change human nature? But this definition also reveals many problems because if - as Helena Siipi said - human nature is a description of what is typical for human beings, what is wrong in changing it for better?
The last definition is the one that defines naturalness as familiarity. In this sense unnatural means foreign, odd or uncustomary. Problems connected to this definition are the following: first of all the fact that it is morally irrelevant as such; secondly that it is relevant to risk assessment: claims concerning the unnaturalness of neuro-enhancement can be interpreted as warnings of its possible unknown negative social or health related side effects.
For Siipi, these definitions of the significance of nature draw the following conclusions: that there is no support for the view that neuro-enhancement is morally undesirable because of its unnaturalness. However, unnaturalness claims can sometimes be understood as moral warnings over possible undesirable side-effects. (Abstract [4] in Issuu)

Chistopher Wareham spoke about Calorie Restrictions (CR), which has been shown to increase the lifespan in a wide variety of animal subjects. This has led biologist such R. Miller (2002) and D. Gems (2003) - Wareham said - "to predict that CR, or drugs that mimic the effects of CR may greatly increase the maximum human life span".
This takes in some general questions: the first concerns individual welfare: would life extension by these means be good for you? The second is about utility: would these interventions be good for society? The last question regards fair policy: how would these interventions be fairly distributed?
In the first step, he distinguished between CR and CR mimetics: CR means a reduction of calorie intake without malfunction, while CR mimetics (CRMs) means drugs that mimic effects of caloric restriction. It has effects on longevity, on health, and it is used in humans. CRMs increase both the number and quality of years lived.
There is an ethical question whether interventions that extend life span should be considered as healthcare resources. Life extension is usually regarded as enhancement, while existing health regulations assign resources primarily to treatments. Wareham lists some arguments in favour of CRMs as being 'treatment-like'.
If a disease - according with the definition given by Daniels (2000) - is any state of person's biology or psychology which reduces species typical functioning below some statistically defined level, an enhancement is any change in the biology or psychology of a person which increased species typical normal functioning above some statistically defined level.
Once this distinction was made, Wareham explained why CRMs are a treatment: firstly it decrease the likelihood of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer (Redman et al 2008); secondly it has many potential implications for Alzheimer's disease (Quin et al 2006); finally it decreases the risk of nonlethal conditions "such as cataracts, kidney diseases, arthritis, cognitive decline, collagen cross linking, immune senescence, and many others" (Olshansky et al 2006).
Then the problem of inequality arises: existing inequalities in wealth will exacerbate the longevity divide. Levelling down is ethically problematic: the inability to provide a good to all doesn't mean we should prevent others from accessing it (Harris 2004).
He concluded by saying that without policy intervention, CRMs may result in inequality but that public provision is preferable to banning and also conforms to existing health policy. Nevertheless, even if Life Extension is an enhancement, CRMs can be considered a treatment. (Abstract [5] in Issuu)

part 1 and 2: Soren Holm
part 3: Helena Siipi
part 4: Nicole Vincent
part 5: Chistopher Wareham



Soren Holm

Helena Siipi

Nicole Vincent

Chistopher Wareham

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Links in this document:

  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Virginia Sanchini
  2. 2] http://issuu.com/fondazionebassetti/docs/ecap7_soren_holm
  3. 3] http://issuu.com/fondazionebassetti/docs/ecap7_nicole_vincent
  4. 4] http://issuu.com/fondazionebassetti/docs/ecap7_helena_siipi
  5. 5] http://issuu.com/fondazionebassetti/docs/ecap7_christopher_wareham
CC Creative Commons - some rights reserved.
Helena Siipi, Nicole Voncent, Soren Holm, Chistopher Wareham
Articles by:  Virginia Sanchini
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